Mike Chase had a winding road to get to the saddle of a stock car for the inaugural Brickyard 400.
For the inaugural only, NASCAR issued a provisional starting spot for a Winston West competitor — the cars were the same as Cup cars, just in a regionalized Western series mostly on short tracks and road courses.
“How I ended up, the last race before that was Portland, Ore,.” Chase said. “I finished third and I was leading the points, so I got to go. For my car owner, John Strousar, it was a lifelong dream to go to the Speedway.”
Chase was from Redding, Calif., population 30,000, and ended up winning the Winston West title in 1994, the year of the inaugural Brickyard.
But in 1993, he moved his family to Charlotte, N.C., to be closer to the “big kids” of stock car racing.
“I thought I was on vacation for about three days,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t have a job, my wife didn’t have a job, and my child had no school to go to. My wife went to work as business manager for the Legends series.”
Along the way, George Snider, an Indy veteran from Bakersfield, Calif., introduced Chase to A.J. Foyt at the Copper World Classic at Phoenix. They became good friends, and eventually Chase drove a stock car for Foyt and worked for him in other capacities, among them general manager of Foyt’s stock-car program.
“To come from Redding, Calif., and get to do what I have done is pretty fortunate,” Chase said. “I started out as a kid scraping dirt off my dad’s supermodified.”
He went back to the “500” twice with Foyt and came as close as anyone can come to driving an Indy car around the 2 ½-mile oval. He was strapped into one of Foyt’s cars when, he says, USAC nixed the program.
He wanted to make the Brickyard 400 field on his own.
“We went there to test and had a terrific problem aero-wise, and we flew some bodywork up and got the car in pretty good shape,” he said. “We went out for the first run of qualifying, and it was terrible loose and we were 4 miles an hour slow.
“The second day, you know how the sun sets behind the grandstand and peeks through to the track in Turn 1. I came down the front straightaway, took the green, and the sunlight came between the grandstands and it looked exactly like grease so I slowed down. I should’ve known NASCAR would’ve never put me out there if there was oil.”
So he started with the provisional. An accident sidelined him in 42nd place after 91 laps.
“Me missing the show allowed Foyt to get in,” he said. “We were racing short tracks and road courses out west, but Indianapolis was a whole different deal. You came off the corners, and you could hardly see the other end.”
The walk from the garage to pit road on race morning was special.
“I had been fortunate enough with Foyt to walk through the tunnel to his race car,” Chase said. “But when you walk out there with a driver’s suit on, it gives you chills. It’s really amazing. When you come around on the parade lap, you’ve never seen so many people before.
“Someone came up to me and showed me a mug with the picture on it with Mrs. Hulman and the bricks,” he said. “I told him, ‘I’m in that.’ I have my picture in my trophy room. There’re not a lot of guys who have that picture.”
Today, he has the job of his dreams, working for Penske Racing as the fulltime shop builder on the Nationwide car of Brad Keselowski.
“Supers … I absolutely loved open wheel,” Chase said. “It’s neat at Penske because I have to walk through the IRL shop to get to my shop. I certainly would’ve loved to drive one of those cars.”
He started at Penske last October after a 10-year stint with GTG and the Wood Brothers. He returned to the Speedway in the early 2000s when Larry Foyt was driving for Foyt Racing and Chase was working for A.J.
“I hope I’m at Penske until I decide I don’t want to do it any more,” Chase said. “I live in Concord and it’s a 40-minute drive ,and I thank the Good Lord every day that I’ve gotten to work for Penske Racing.
“I’m not ever giving up this sport. I was recently inducted into the California Sports Hall of Fame, and I couldn’t go because we were in Daytona with Brad’s car. Every time I get to Indianapolis, it’s so big, people treat you so well … they opened the door for us.”
He returned to Redding recently to go fishing with his father. When he was growing up, it held 30,000 people.
“I went back and the sign said 150,000,” he said.